For nearly 40 years, the guidebook author and backcountry guardian has answered the call for the wild
By Pete Gauvin • Photos courtesy of Marcus Libkind
Marcus Libkind has been breaking trail through Sierra snow, literally and figuratively, for nearly 40 years. And for this, every skier and snowshoer who appreciates the serenity and thrills of self-propelled exploration along California’s long white backbone owes him a debt of gratitude.
Libkind is best known for his series of guidebooks, Ski Tours in the Sierra Nevada. Many a dog-eared copy sit on cabin bookshelves and in the adventure libraries of California winter explorers.
Though the books may be a bit dated and tame for today’s generation of backcountry peak baggers, they’re still quite useful and informative guides. And they were the first. Before Libkind researched, wrote and self-published his series of four guidebooks, starting in the early 1980s, there were no books on ski touring in the Sierra.
But Libkind’s books, though they’ve probably introduced many people to the wonders of backcountry skiing, aren’t his most significant and lasting contribution. That would have to be his dogged determination and constant vigilance in protecting the public lands of our mountain landscape against development and unrestricted motorized intrusion.
Libkind is a founder and current president of the Snowlands Network, the only dedicated voice for protecting the winter backcountry in California and Nevada. He also helped found the Winter Wildlands Alliance, which works for similar goals on the national level.
Without Marcus Libkind’s efforts, the Sierra’s wildlands would be irrevocably altered and the winter backcountry we all enjoy would be much less inviting.
For Libkind it all started, as so many transformations do, with a single lesson — a ski lesson in Yosemite in 1971.
Born and raised in Southern California, Libkind had never skied until he moved to San Jose for his first job out of college. A magazine article about cross-country skiing in Yosemite peaked his interest. He took a class at Crane Flat and on his second day on skis skied out to Dewey Point. And with that, his life’s direction had just executed a kick turn. Skiing would shape his life from then on.
“I entered the Nordic Holiday Race my sixth day on skis,” recalls Libkind, now 62. “I came in like 75th out of 200 or so … I was 23 years old and I was an avid backpacker. (Discovering cross-country skiing) just sort of extended that into winter.”
In 1975, Libkind, a mechanical engineer by profession, turned his passions into his livelihood when he opened an outdoors store in Livermore, Sunrise Mountaineering. It grew to two stores, which he owned and operated for five years.
It was during this time that he decided to put together a book for friends on all the ski tours he’d done. “I was going to print about 250 books and give them away,” he recalls.
Typed on a rented typewriter and featuring Xeroxed topo maps, the book, published in 1980, was titled “In Search of the Snow Bunny” in reference to a whimsical picture of Libkind on the cover. He printed 3000 and sold them all with the help of Gary Schaezlein, owner of Western Mountaineering. It covered classic tours and skiing areas such as Sugar Bowl to Squaw, the Peter Grubb Hut, Angora Lookout, Carson Pass, Bear Valley, Pinecrest and Yosemite.
“It was the best thing out at the time,” Libkind says. And it was the forerunner of the Ski Tours in the Sierra Nevada series, which he also self-published under his Bittersweet Publishing Company — Volume 1, Lake Tahoe; Volume 2, Carson Pass, Bear Valley and Pinecrest; Volume 3, Yosemite to Sequoia; Volume 4, East of the Sierra Crest.
Though all the books are out of print now, he keeps them updated on his website, backcountryskitours.com, adding new tours and variations as time permits. The site also has comprehensive information on everything from backcountry huts to ski waxing, as well as links to weather and avalanche conditions, and, of course, on getting involved with Snowlands and the Winter Wildlands Alliance.
“Through the publication of all these books, I always had a job. It was never to make money,” says Libkind, now retired from his work at Sandia National Labs in Livermore. “At this point I keep working on the website to chronicle the information so it’ll be there in the future.”
Libkind still spends much of his free time on snow, often skiing with his daughter Sophie, a senior in high school. Most are day trips, but he tries to do a few hut trips every year and a week-long camping trip in the spring.
He’d rather explore than just climb up a peak to ski back down, as many people do now. “I’m not an extreme skier. I enjoy modest descents and covering miles on lightweight gear,” he says.
From Author to Activist
In 1985, Libkind quit his job and moved from his Bay Area home to Lee Vining to write his fourth volume on the Eastern Sierra. He lived behind the ranger station in Lee Vining Canyon and skied more than 100 days that winter. “I skied, wrote and played bridge,” he says.
He also became alarmed by proposals for commercial development on public lands — such as the “Sherwin Ski Resort” at Mammoth Lakes and for a nordic resort in the Mono Craters area, “a place the public had been using for ages and all of a sudden you’d have to pay for it.” And he was disturbed by the growing presence of snowmobiles. Snowmobile organizations were lobbying for free range over all non-wilderness land in Inyo National Forest at the time.
“But nowhere was there a voice for the human-powered backcountry community — a community that is inclined toward self-sufficiency and individualism, often choosing to avoid the regimentation of organized groups in favor of the solitude of winter wildlands,” Libkind told Hooked on the Outdoors magazine in 2005, when he was recognized in their annual Outdoor Persons of the Year awards.
In this vacuum, Libkind spearheaded the formation of an advocacy group for human-powered winter enthusiasts, a conservation committee within the Loma Prieta Chapter of the Sierra Club known as the Nordic Voice.
Preserving winter wildlands became Libkind’s chief pursuit, exploring them second.
Over the next 16 years, the Nordic Voice was central to several key victories:
Halting the former owner of Sierra Ski Ranch (now Sierra-at-Tahoe) from expanding onto Huckleberry Ridge and closing to backcountry skiers the terrain south of Echo Summit.
Stopping plans to convert the ski trail network at Pinecrest Lake off Sonora Pass to a commercial, pay-for-use operation.
Blocking multiple development proposals for the Castle Valley area north of Donner Summit, one of the most popular backcountry spots in California.
In 2001, Libkind and several others transitioned the Nordic Voice into the Snowlands Network, an autonomous non-profit no longer under the umbrella of the Sierra Club. Around the same time he also helped found the Winter Wildlands Alliance to fight for the interests of low-impact backcountry users nationally.
Snowlands has had a number of key successes, among them: This is the second winter that the Forestdale Creek area east of Carson Pass, known for its great powder skiing, is now closed to snowmobiles. The south side of Mount Rose Highway at Tahoe Meadows is now closed to snowmobile use through its efforts.
Snowlands continues to work on a dozen issues or more. (For a current list, see www.snowlands.org.) One involves Kirkwood ski resort, which wants to replace its dirty diesel-generated power supply for the resort and homeowners with grid power. That’s all well and good, Libkind says, but two of the three proposals would bring huge above ground towers up over majestic Thunder Mountain behind Silver Lake along the border of the Mokelumne Wilderness. Snowlands is taking the lead to argue for putting the power lines below ground, along a less sensitive route.
Like Herding Cats
Last year, when the poor economy forced Snowlands to let go of its first staff member and president, Ellen Lapham, Libkind stepped in to fill the void. As president of Snowlands, he would like to see their ranks swell.
“We have about 500 members. When you think about how many backcountry skiers and snowshoers there are that’s a pitiful number … So many people talk about the great work we do. But if people value the joys of being out there on fresh powder, everyone of those skiers and snowshoers should be a member.”
Meanwhile, snowmobilers, Libkind adds, go farther into the wilderness every year. “And it only takes 20 minutes for a single snowmobile to track up an entire mountain.”
The motorized groups are better organized, he says.
“Our biggest enemy is really ourselves. Backcountry skiers, snowshoers, tele skiers, AT skiers, snowboarders all have an individualistic spirit. They tend not to want to be part of a big group. As a result they’re not being represented … The snowmobilers tend to join clubs and the clubs tell them when and what to write and that gives them tons of clout.”
If you want to be heard when the Forest Service is doing planning you better have an organization representing you at the table, he adds. “The Forest Service is not proactive. It’s reactive. Unless there’s pressure, they don’t do anything.”
Case in point, Libkind notes, is Martis Peak off Highway 267 near Brockway Summit in north Lake Tahoe. “Martis Peak was a mecca for non-motorized use,” he says. Now snowmobiles rule the area whenever there’s fresh snow. “They pack it all down and then they don’t come back until the next snowfall.”
This, despite there being more than 20 miles of trail for snowmobiles on the other side of the pass, along the old road known as the “Fiberboard Freeway,” where a commercial snowmobile outfitter operates.
“Our idea is to have non-motorized use on one side and snowmobiles on the other,” Libkind says. But the Forest Service is not likely to take action until a conflict erupts.
“We aren’t opposed to everything. With snowmobilers we just want a balance.”
Craig Dostie, who published the California-based backcountry skiing magazine Couloir for nearly 20 years, admires Libkind’s vigilance. “He’s been at the forefront of fighting unrestricted use of snowmobiles for decades.”
Filling the Void
Whatever style of gear one prefers in the backcountry, Libkind stresses the need that we come together rather than fractionalize and diminish our collective power. For instance, “Skiers need to look at snowshoers as their friends,” he says. “Snowshoeing is huge. You don’t want to alienate a group that has the same things at heart.”
More worrisome to Libkind is what he sees as a widespread reluctance among younger backcountry users to protect the assets that beckon them.
“People have lost touch for the need to be active in preservation,” he says. “But it’s endemic to sports like backcountry skiing and whitewater kayaking. If you don’t stand up, your interests won’t be heard.”
Just as in the backcounty, one person can only break trail for so long before others need to take the lead.
To learn more about how to get involved with the Snowlands Network, www.snowlands.org.